Infections: Greed vs Saving Lives

I’ve been meaning to write about this.  Mad Mike over at Majikthise has written two very important posts about health care.  The first is about tackling the flu:

My point about influenza is that preventing most of the deaths can be thought of as ‘low-hanging fruit.’

With annual influenza, all we need is more vaccine stuck into the appropriate people. There’s no new technology to develop (although cell-based culture would be an improvement). Once a person is vaccinated, there’s no behavioral modification needed. We could have an effective vaccination strategy up and running in two to five years (being a pessimist, I’ll say five). A couple of years to increase vaccine production facilities, two years to work out the distribution kinks, and year five, it works.

Unsurprisingly, this boils down to a question of lives vs money:

There are very few problems can be solved solely by throwing buckets of money at them (although buckets of money are either helpful or necessary). Annual influenza is one of those problems than can be solved simply by investing more resources. That’s why this is so frustrating: it is utterly within our power to save roughly 28,000 lives per year, and yet we fail to do so.

There is just nothing ethical about letting people die when we have the means to save them.  But the second post got me thinking.  If 28,000 people die every year from the flu, how many are just hospitalized?  How many bring new bugs in, and carry new bugs out?  And that’s just from the flu.  What if we take into account every preventable health issue that, if left alone, leads to hospitalization?

That leads us back to that second post.  The number of people dying every year from hospital infections is staggering:

CDC estimates: 90,000 dead. 2,000,000 infected. Maybe if we called this an epidemic or a bacterial insurgency, people would pay attention.

Friends have often asked me why I don’t take bioterrorism very seriously. I have a lot of reasons, but here’s the germane one: the bioterrorist attack, for all intensive purposes, is already here. 90,000 dead per year–forget the World Trade Center, that’s a Nagasaki sized number.

So in addition to the thousands of people, every year, we fail to save from the flu, we are radically ratcheting up a host of other other health problems.  Universal Health Care and proper prevention and vaccination programs are not some abstract moral highland to strive for.  They are a necessity towards combating the current health crisis.

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